World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Thanksgiving foods on a table

Serving Up Tips for a Waste-Free Thanksgiving

  • Date: 23 November 2021
  • Author: Alex Nichols-Vinueza, Program Manager, Food Loss and Waste

For most of us, Thanksgiving is all about the food. And for those looking to have a more environmentally-friendly Thanksgiving this year, the number one thing we can do is take steps to value the food we’re serving. This starts with us recognizing all of the resources that go into producing our Thanksgiving meal (long before we purchase our ingredients at the supermarket), and it ends with us doing our part to make sure none of it goes to waste.

According to ReFED, Americans will throw away about 305 million pounds of food on Thanksgiving day. That’s more than $405M worth of food, which also comes with a big toll on the planet. Producing that food took around 100 billion gallons of water, just for it to end up in the trash. And the greenhouse gas emissions from this wasted food is equivalent to driving around the Earth’s equator more than 100,000 times.

If you’re serving turkey this year, consider that US turkeys need about three pounds of food – corn, soy, and other crops – for each pound of their weight. That means a 16-pound turkey consumes the equivalent of 48 pounds of feed crops, and a pasture-raised turkey might eat twice that! Growing these crops requires significant amounts of fuel (which generates greenhouse gas emissions), water (a pound of corn needs roughly 50 gallons), and fertilizer. The expansion of animal feed crops such as corn and soy also pose serious risks to native habitats. In 2019 alone, we lost around 2.6 million acres of the North American Great Plains, primarily to row crop agriculture like corn and soy.

I wouldn’t dare tell anyone they need to cut out the turkey from Thanksgiving, but I will ask that we all take a moment to be truly thankful for what goes into producing this meal and to help make sure none of it ends up in a landfill.

Here are a few practical tips to make sure you get the most out of your meal this year:

  • Take the time to calculate how much food you really need and try to make just enough. Your wallet will thank you for this one, too.
  • If you’ve overdone it on the Thanksgiving foods for a while, store leftovers in the freezer to enjoy after you’ve had a break. Frozen leftovers can still be good months later.
  • Use leftovers to create new meals. Make turkey soup and turkey stock with the leftover vegetable trimmings. Search “Thanksgiving leftover recipes” online to find new ideas and recipes.
  • If you have more than you know you will use, encourage friends and family to take leftovers home, drop off a plate at a neighbor’s who’s away from family, and share your leftover-recipe ideas.

With a little preparation and creativity we can all enjoy a Thanksgiving feast with less waste. And remember to keep these tips in mind throughout the holiday season (and all year round). What better way to show your gratitude for all our planet gives us!


Just in time for Thanksgiving, Alex Nichols-Vinueza joins WWF's Nature Breaking podcast to share some tips for avoiding food waste during the holidays:


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